Here is the summary for this week’s Monday Economic Report:
Global financial markets were highly volatile last week, with investors concerned about slower growth in Europe and an Ebola outbreak in the United States, among other factors. Indeed, industrial production in the Eurozone fell 1.8 percent in August, and activity was down largely across-the-board, most notably in Germany (down 4.3 percent), the Eurozone’s largest economy. Sluggish income and labor market growth in Europe has also pushed inflationary pressures lower, with year-over-year pricing changes of just 0.3 percent in September. Despite such worries, equity markets began to rebound on Friday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) closing at 16380.41. Nonetheless, the DJIA remains 5.2 percent below its all-time high of 17279.74 on September 19.
Still, the U.S. economy has shown signs of resilience. Despite a softer August, manufacturing production increased 0.5 percent in September. Over the past 12 months, output in the sector has risen 3.7 percent. While this was slower than its July year-over-year pace, it reflects a nice improvement from the more sluggish 1.5 percent rate in January.
Moreover, surveys from the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation (MAPI) and the New York and Philadelphia Federal Reserve Banks observed expanding activity levels in their latest reports. Each measure eased somewhat in October, but they were expansionary nonetheless. The weakest of these reports was the Empire State Manufacturing Survey, which observed a slight contraction in new orders. Yet, even there, respondents remained mostly optimistic about demand and output over the next six months. Along those lines, MAPI has a generally upbeat outlook, predicting that manufacturing production will increase by 3.4 percent in 2014 and 4.0 percent in 2015.
Housing starts exceeded 1 million again, increasing from an annualized 957,000 units in August to 1,017,000 in September. This continues a slow-but-steady trend upward, with an average of 978,111 so far in 2014 relative to an average of 930,000 for all of 2013. Still, there was relatively weak housing activity throughout much of the second half of last year and the first half of this year, and the latest data suggest that the sector has begun to stabilize somewhat. I continue to predict housing starts solidly in the 1.1 million unit range by the beginning of 2015. Homebuilder confidence has also reflected a positive outlook despite slipping a bit in October. Lower mortgage rates might spur more residential construction activity. According to Freddie Mac, average 30-year fixed mortgage rates fell to 3.97 percent this past week, their lowest level since June 2013.
Meanwhile, there was mixed news on the consumer front. On the positive side, consumer confidence reached a pre-recessionary high, according to the University of Michigan and Thomson Reuters. This is a sign that improvements in the economy and lower gasoline prices have helped to lift Americans’ spirits. Yet, there are also lingering worries about income and labor market growth, and consumers remain somewhat cautious overall. Retail spending declined 0.3 percent in September, suggesting softness as we begin autumn. At the same time, year-over-year growth in retail sales was up 4.3 percent, a fairly decent rate, and the holiday season retail outlook looks pretty strong. We hope we will see better consumer spending data in the coming months.
This week, we will get additional insights regarding the health of the global economy. Markit will release Flash Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) data for China, Japan, the Eurozone and the United States. The European data are expected to show continued weakness, but we will be watching for signs of progress in the Chinese manufacturing sector, which has decelerated in recent months. The Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank will also unveil its latest manufacturing survey, and it is expected to show continued expansion in its district. Beyond these surveys, we will learn about growth in consumer prices, and if they are similar to the producer price index data released last week, they will reflect easing in both food and energy costs. Other highlights this week include reports on existing and new home sales, leading indicators and state employment.
Chad Moutray is the chief economist, National Association of Manufacturers.